APRIL 22, 2020


Okay, so let’s get this out of the way: The iPad Pro Magic Keyboard is very, very good.

The keyboard itself feels great! The trackpad is (while maybe a little tiny?) just the right level of responsive and clicky! The rubbery material feels good under the palms of your hands, and the keys feel wonderful underneath your fingertips! Even more interesting, the iPad Pro as a whole feels surprisingly better when its in the keyboard case. We all knew that trackpad support was nice when it rolled out, but having a trackpad made for the iPad that is interconnected at a hardware level just takes the experience to a whole new level.

So, the iPad Pro Magic Keyboard is good! It’s great, even! Quite a few words have been written about this keyboard, so I don’t feel the need to write my own about every little detail. What I want to talk about instead is ‘context’.

Let’s rewind.

Years ago when the iPad Pro was first released, Apple introduced the ‘Smart Connector’ and ‘Smart Keyboard’ at the same time. As soon as I saw this, I knew the iPad and its keyboard would radically change the way that I worked.

At the time I had begun building a habit of spending the first hour of every day writing — and yet as I settled into this rhythm I wasn’t exactly sure how I was going to do that writing. Sometimes I used a notebook and a pen. Other times I used a MacBook Pro. Neither of these options felt like a great fit for the way that I worked.

Watching the Smart Keyboard reveal, it was evident that this was a device made for the type of work I wanted to do. I was certain that the joining of the single-focus iPad Pro and a keyboard made for it would create something special: A portable device with a huge battery, cellular connection, and the ability to let you focus in and just get to work.

I was right!

You might be having a hard time remembering what the OG Smart Keyboard looked like. I’ll refresh your memory! The original Smart Keyboard was not a folio case like what we have today, instead it covered only the front of the screen and hid the keyboard away behind a fold. This fold was, weirdly, amazing. You would open up the keyboard with a flourish of the hand, popping the keyboard out and creating a little triangle tent on which the iPad would then stand firm, like a column on its pedestal.

When you were done writing you could easily use the iPad as a tablet, folding the keyboard back into its hidden space and flipping the entire cover behind the device as one might do with the cover of a book. As a bonus there were a couple of other orientations you could fold the Smart Keyboard into — a low-angled drawing mode and even (sort of) a stand!

I took this iPad Pro with me everywhere I went. It was good enough that I ditched my MacBook Pro entirely and found myself writing more than I ever had before. I traveled Europe with the iPad Pro as my primary computer, walking a mile with it in my hand or tucked away in my backpack, satisfied by the way that I could take a break to read or write at any moment.

I have nothing but the fondest memories for that keyboard. What I loved about it was the way in which any context felt possible. Did I want to write? I could write from anywhere! The couch, a desk, a coffee shop, an outdoor patio! Did I want to read? I could pull the iPad off the keyboard and, with a Pencil in my hand, take notes with ease! Did I want to lay in bed and watch YouTube? Sure, I could do that too! The original Smart Keyboard made changing contexts effortless. I never found myself worrying about whether or not I should change it up, I just did it.

When a newer iPad Pro was announced, so too was the replacement for the Smart Keyboard. Instead of a 1-to-1 match we got an iteration: The Smart Keyboard Folio.

As I watched the announcement video, I was surprisingly disappointed! Gone was the cover with the elegantly hidden keyboard, replaced by a new case that covered the entire front and back of the iPad. It looked more rigid then the keyboard I had fallen in love with, and there were no longer any supplemental orientations for other contexts which subtly hinted at the wisdom of Apple's industrial design team. Pulling the iPad Pro out of the folio was less elegant than it had been before. This one seemed meant to stay on, and yet the always-exposed keyboard meant that when folding the cover behind the device you would touch all of the keys gracelessly, as if you were playing some strange butterfly-switch accordion.

I resigned myself to this Smart Keyboard Folio, and though I always enjoyed typing on it the loss of context was seriously felt.

So that gets us back to where we are today. The new Magic Keyboard is the latest iteration — and I am mostly content with the way it improves on the idea of switching from context to context.

The context of ‘writing’? Great news, it’s now supercharged. Not only does it feel better to have a trackpad as you write, but other details about the case make the experience of typing absolutely delightful. The way that the screen floats above your fingertips feels just right and the weight of the base means that the entire device feels stable and sturdy no matter how or where you’re sitting.

The context of holding the iPad in your hands? It’s also gained some ground! The heavy-duty magnets allows you to tear the iPad off the base in a way that feels ridiculously satisfying, so much better than the way that the Smart Keyboard Folio would weakly give up the iPad and collapse in on itself.

And yet! Here is a problem! With the OG Smart Keyboard, an iPad-less keyboard cover was a tiny thing that felt insignificant. You could hide it away or let it just sit there for awhile. This Magic Keyboard is, in comparison, a beast! I find myself wondering, what am I supposed to do with the keyboard when I'm not using it? I pull the iPad off and then it sits there, with the size and profile of a freaking laptop, taking up space!

Perhaps this is an issue exacerbated by both my current living situation and our Age of Quarantine. I can imagine that I wouldn’t give this a second thought if I had a sizable office or a tech garage with a hefty workbench. Slapping the Magic Keyboard down and leaving it there all day would feel fine! However, my current reality is that I live in a one-bedroom apartment, and the world is such that I’m here all day, every day. Space is at a premium and I’m always trying to make sure that everything is just so. When the Magic Keyboard is not connected to the iPad, it kind of feels like a burden.

This means that shifting context still feels like a slightly disjointed experience. I’ve pulled the iPad off a few times while writing these very words. Each time I’ve found myself wondering what to do with this husk of a case. Once I awkwardly put it on a chair, and another time I put it on the ground where it laid on its side like a helpless turtle that had been flipped over. “Just close it!”, you might say. Well, the hinges of the Magic Keyboard are made of some stiff stuff (as to support the heft of the iPad Pro) and both closing and reopening the thing is just enough of a hassle that I don’t want to do it when the iPad Pro isn’t inside.

Maybe over time I will grow more accustomed to the Magic Keyboard and get used to the issues I’m finding right now. But maybe I won’t! I thought I might find myself growing accustomed to the Smart Keyboard Folio. I never did.

Perhaps it's telling that in the commercial where Apple originally showed the Magic Keyboard off, we see plenty of people removing the iPad Pro from the keyboard but only one person even attaching it. When that person does so, the hinge of the Magic Keyboard is open and ready to support the iPad Pro. Maybe this is best practice! Perhaps to take advantage of every context the iPad Pro has to offer, you just have to give the Magic Keyboard the space it asks for.

I'll be giving that a try.

I write this because the issue of context is such an important one to me. It’s the very cornerstone of what I love so much about the iPad as a device! I’ve been using a Mac more than ever as of late, and I’ve been enjoying all of the benefits that come with a giant screen. But when I’m in front of my iMac, I’m at the whim of that particular context: The seat that I’m in, the input devices that I’m using, the apps that are grappling for my attention.

I want the iPad Pro to remain context-agnostic at all times, so that when I decide what I want to do, I can just do it. The Magic Keyboard lets me write better, but whether it allows me to shift from context to context? That remains to be seen.